Are You Really Listening? The Difference Between a Monologue and a Dialogue

Once in a while, when a conversation with someone I care about takes an unexpected turn that is not to my liking, I am tempted to stand up and yell “C-U-U-U-U-T!”

“Excuse me,” I imagine myself saying, leaning over the person’s shoulder, megaphone dangling at my hip. “But you are not following the script. Your lines are, ‘Yes, of course, you are right. I agree wholeheartedly. I will do (such and such). Anything to make you happy.’”

“Oh,” they respond, slowly emerging from a daze. And they repeat the lines I have fed them. “Great, that’s more like it,” I reply. “Now say it with feeling.”

Of course, my fantasy conversations are usually just that – fantasies. And they’re not dialogues either; they are monologues…between me and my ego.

Although a monologue is technically defined as a “prolonged talk or discourse by a single speaker,” conversations between two parties who are not really listening to each other are essentially monologues masquerading as dialogues.

Most people spend their time vacillating between monologues and dialogues – the latter being far less frequent. At least, this was the theory postulated by early 20th century existentialist philosopher Martin Buber in his signature work “I – Thou.”  http://buber.de/en/

Buber described the difference between monologues and dialogues as an “I – It” vs. “I – Thou” dynamic. In each case, the “I” represents the self – essentially, the totality of our feelings, values, and perceptions that comprise our personal daily universe.

According to Buber, the essence of existence lies in how we interact with others. The “I – It” relationship is about objectification. We relate to people as “its” every time fear and self-interest interfere with our being able to fully experience the exquisite reality of another human being. At its worst and most obvious, “I-itting” is responsible for all genres of human atrocities – genocide, homicide, domestic violence, racism, and sexism. In modern terms, “I – it” would perhaps best describe the paralysis between Republicans and Democrats, Israelis and Palestinians, gays and fundamentalists.

In our intimate or collegial relationships, however, “I-itting” can be much more insidious. Monologues can easily creep into and potentially corrupt the most innocent of conversations, often unintentionally. This usually occurs when we ignore other people’s boundaries, focus too much on making a good impression, or engage with someone based on our perceptions of how well they can serve our personal needs.

Over time, “itting” can lead to feelings of alienation. Most people turn to psychotherapy either because they feel someone else is “itting” them or because they are “itting” others. Perhaps they’re feeling tuned out by a spouse, engaging in empty sexual relationships, neglecting their children, or living as strangers (“its”) to their authentic selves. Even as a therapist, I must monitor my own tendencies to “it” my clients by imposing my values, judgments, expectations, or need to feel competent.

That’s why authentic dialogue, not dueling monologues, is the healing aspect of the therapeutic relationship – or any relationship for that matter. To experience the full-bodied richness of an encounter with another person without motive or guile is what Buber describes as the “I-Thou” relationship.

The “I-Thou” relationship is about letting go of agendas. It’s about authenticity, mutuality, witnessing, and truth-telling. It respects differences and embraces separate but equally valid realities, which requires the courage to take risks and trust the process.

Of course, letting go of appearances and attachments to outcomes is often easier said than done. “I – Thou” thus requires a fully present “I.” What does that mean? A wise friend of mine has the same birthday wish every year – to have greater intimacy with himself. Without that, he explains, he cannot be intimate with anyone else. Such is the “I – Thou” ideal.

One of the hardest things we can ever do, and the greatest act of love, is to put aside our own agendas and really listen to another person.  That’s why my fantasy monologues are never quite as satisfying as real-life dialogues, when the mutual exchange of feelings and perspectives can deepen, heal, and cement the bonds of friendship, partnerships, and familial relationships.

So while I may be tempted to redirect conversations that make me nervous, I know what I must ultimately do – put down my megaphone, toss out the script, take a deep breath, and say, “yes, I am listening.” And mean it.

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